Ash Wednesday – Wednesday, February 14, 2018

February 14, 2018  
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Matthew 6:1-6

Our gospel reading tonight begins with a warning: Beware!
Be wary of.
It means to be on guard.
This is a warning. As we begin Lent, as we begin our 40 day season of discipline and preparation, “Beware!”

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them” (Matt. 6:1).

The word “piety” is interesting. “Piety” means “righteousness and justice” combined. The warning Matthew gives us, then becomes
Beware of practicing righteousness and justice before others in order to be seen by them.

We are not being warned to be on guard against practicing our piety, we are being warned to be on guard against improper motivations.
Be wary of WHY you are practicing your piety.
Be wary WHY you are expressing your devotion to God the way you are expressing your devotion to God.

Lent is a season designed for us to engage in specific self-disciplines; Lent is a season designed for us to intentionally structure our devotional life… examining ourselves and how we live with God. As we enter into this season of self and corporate discipline, it is important for us to be wary, to be aware of our motivations.

In our gospel text, Matthew set up a dramatic contrast between those he calls hypocrites and those we might think of as “authentically faithful.”

We are hypocrites, according to Matthew, when we give offerings, sounding trumpets in the synagogues and streets, demanding everyone’s attention, wanting our offerings to be noticed and praised.

We are “authentically faithful” when we give quietly, when we give secretly, when we give to God so discreetly that our left hand doesn’t even know what our right had is doing.

According to Matthew, when hypocrites pray they love to stand in worship or on street corners so their prayers can be heard by others.

When the “authentically faithful” pray their prayers are words spoken to God Discreetly, meant for God’s ears alone.

Hypocrites, when they fast, disfigure their faces to show everyone they are fasting. The “authentically faithful” fast in secret. They fast for God, for God alone.

In ancient Greek, the word hypocrite means “a stage actor.” A hypocrite is someone who is performing, someone who is grandstanding. The person is motivated by the attention he or she gets from his or her “audience.”

Authentic, faithful devotion to God—true piety—is done for God, with God, loving God.

The contrast between hypocrisy and authentic discipleship is not a contrast between public and private, it is a contrast of motivations. Hypocrites are motivated by the attention they get from others because of what they themselves have done.

Authentic disciples are motivated by their relationship with God. They desire to strengthen that relationship, knowing it is what they need and what God desires.

Today we begin our season of Lent with this warning. Be wary. Examine your motivations. Ask yourself why you are here. Ask yourself what these 40 days will be for you.

This is not a time for drama. This is a season of discipline, a season of quiet, personal acts of devotion.

Lent is a time to examine ourselves, a time to quietly re-discover the presence of God in us. Lent is a time to know God’s love in new and old ways.
God loves us.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.

Last Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, February 11, 2018

February 11, 2018  
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2 Corinthians 4:3-6

These past weeks, our sermon series has been rooted on readings from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which was really his second letter to the Corinthians but which we know as his first because we don’t have his first, just references to it in his second which we call his first. This week our reading is from his “2nd” letter, which must mean it is really his third, if you follow what I said about his actual first and second.

Things changed somewhere between the two letters we have in our New Testament. Rather than focus on the fracturing that as occurring in the congregation in Corinth, as he did in the “first” letter, in this letter Paul seems to be defending himself, and more appropriately, his work with the congregation. There were those in the congregation who weren’t impressed by Paul, or by his work. This left Paul frustrated and defensive. He fought the need to defend himself, focusing instead on the gospel message he preached, hoping his message would speak for itself.

Remember, Paul wasn’t in Corinth, he was writing to them. There were others in Corinth, others who visited the congregation, showing up with letters of recommendation, trying to assert themselves into the life of the congregation. Those letters of commendation were working, they were sowing seeds of doubt in Paul’s leadership. It makes me think of the old saying, when the cat’s away, the mice will play. Except this wasn’t about a cat and a few mice, it was about the future of a congregation Paul dearly loved.

Paul could have gotten his own letters of recommendation. It was a common enough practice and he had more than enough standing in Christian circles, let alone Roman society. Paul’s point was—I don’t need a letter or letters of recommendation. I have you, Corinth. You are my commendation. Look at who you are. As a church. As individual people.

As one scholar wrote “the Corinthians themselves are his letters, written on ‘human hearts’ (3:3)” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 11, p. 63).

 

Anyone besides me watch the show “Alaska: the Last Frontier”? If you ask Jeanne she will tell you I watch “anything Alaska.” If there was a TV network showing shows only from or about Alaska, I would probably retire and do nothing but watch TV.

This past Sunday night the Discovery network ran a marathon of Alaska: the Last Frontier. I was in Alaska heaven.  The show is about an extended family living on land in Alaska that has been home to four generations.

In one of Sunday’s episodes one of the 2nd generation fathers was working his horses with his adult son (3rd generation). When the adult son was a child, growing up on the ranch, he watched his father “break” horses. He described it as violent and frightening.

The son was afraid of horses. He says his fear was rooted in watching his dad “break” them.

When his dad invited him to come “work” the horses, he was skeptical.

The son’s father wanted to show the son that his father was a changed man. And this is why I’m telling you the story: his father no longer “breaks” horses, he “gentles” them. Literally, that is what it is called when you try to tame a wild horse using this new method, it is called “gentling.”

The 2nd generation man wanted the 3rd generation man, his son, to see that what was written on the 2nd generation man’s heart had changed. His son saw the change. Because of the change in heart, the son began to relax. His fears were calmed.

 

Paul was writing to an entire congregation asking them to examine their own flesh and blood hearts (TNIB, vol. 11, p. 63). He wrote

For it is the God who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (4:6).

Two points:

  1. Paul was clearly saying to the Corinthians “It’s not about me. It’s about you. Or, more specifically, it is about what is written on your hearts. Look at your hearts. What are your hearts telling you about Jesus Christ?”
  2. Which is the 2nd point. It’s not about us, it is about what is written on OUR hearts? What do our hearts tell us about the God who lives and reigns in and through us? AND, what do others see in us?

Again, a scholar wrote “Christ represents and reveals God to us. When we act with love and clemency toward others, we reflect Christ to them. And, at least in some little measure, re-present Christ to them… God’s love is a powerful agent in every life it engages, so when God’s love is imaged or reflected through and beyond us, we reflect not ourselves but Christ through us” “TNIB, vo. 11, p. 79).

This is what I’ve been saying throughout our sermon series: these two (or three) letters are about ethics. They are about how we ought to live. Using the language of our religion, they are about our “life together”, our life as individual people following Jesus Christ together. As individuals, as a congregation, as one part of a larger Church of Christ on earth… What are our hearts telling us? What are we telling others?

Hopefully, our answer is that our hearts tell us we are loved… because we ARE loved.

Hopefully, we are (by the ways we live) telling others they are loved. Because they ARE loved.

This is the perfect message for our Valentine’s celebration this holy Chocolate Sunday: God loves us. And God loves the world.

Amen.

 

Fifth Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, February 4, 2018

February 4, 2018  
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1 Corinthians 9:16-23

They began immigrating to the United States in the 1670’s (“German Americans” in “WWI Anti-German Sentiment” online).

By the early 21st century, their population in the United States has grown to almost 50 million (“German Americans” in “WWI Anti-German Sentiment” online).

During WWI they were accused of being too sympathetic to U.S. enemies. The Justice Department created of list of them, calling them “aliens.” The list contained 480,000 names. “More than 4,000 of them were imprisoned.” (“German Americans” Wikipedia).

“A Minnesota minister was tarred and feathered when he was overheard praying with a dying woman” [in his native language] (“German Americans” Wikipedia). And so they began limiting the use of their native language, “especially in churches” (“German Americans” Wikipedia).

11,000 were placed in internment camps between 1940 and 1948 (“WWII” “German Americans” Wikipedia).

“Homes were raided and many were ransacked” (“German American Internees in the United States during World War II” by Karen E. Ebel). “Fathers and mothers…sometimes both were arrested and disappeared” (Ebel). The “children left… had to fend for themselves. Some were placed in orphanages” (Ebel).

This is how we treated German American immigrants in the United States.

This hits close to home. Fort McCoy was an internment camp during WWII. They mostly housed Japanese Americans (many from Hawaii), but the fort was also home to German “aliens” and later on, German prisoners of war. (Ebel).

My father’s mother’s baptismal name was Meta Martha Bertha Recknagel. My ancestry is half German.

I’m talking about over half a century ago. But I could just as well be talking about 21st century immigrants. Legal. Illegal. The folks who work on area dairy farms. In area restaurants. The people who have roofed our houses.

How quick we are to label “them” aliens.

History just keeps repeating itself…

St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth:

For though I am free with respect to all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, so that I might share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23).

A scholar wrote “As Paul depicts his evangelical efforts, his voluntary slavery to all involves a fundamental and exemplary accommodation to people as and where he finds them” ( The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 907).

Why is this so difficult?

Why do we (like most people) want other people to be like us, to speak like us, to do what we do the way we do it? Why can’t people be more accommodating to other people?

I’ve described the conflict in Paul’s church in previous sermons. There were knowledgeable people who cared only for what they knew. There were traditionalists who wanted everyone to practice their traditions. There were the newcomers, the Gentiles who didn’t follow the same laws, eat the same food, or worship the same way. As I said last week, the newcomers were the “weakest.” So Paul tended to be more accommodating to them—he did not want them to be hurt.

What Paul wanted was for everyone to know God’s love. He wanted everyone to know they were loved by God. If having them know God’s love meant becoming like them, well then, he would become like them. He would speak their language. He would restrict the food he ate. He did this “for the sake of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:23).

I knew my Great-Grandma Recknagel when I was a child. She lived across the street from my Grandma and Grandpa Richmond. When we visited my grandparents, I loved going over to my Great Grandma’s house to visit. She never remembered my name. She had lots of kids and so lots of grandkids and even more great-grandkids. She couldn’t remember anybody’s name so she just called us all her “Dollies.” “Come here, Dolly” she would say. “Hi Dolly.”

I loved my maternal Great Grandma Ottovie Capner.  She was German, too. They both lived during both World Wars, here in Wisconsin. I wonder how they were treated. I wonder if they had to register as aliens. I never thought of my great-grandmothers as aliens. I loved them.

That’s how it goes. When you know someone, when you love someone, you know they can never be alien.

This is God’s call to us.

To know and to love.

Amen.

Fourth Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, January 28, 2018

January 28, 2018  
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1 Corinthians 8:1-13

There is an ancient Chinese saying that is short and to the point: “Not Two!” (The Book of Awakening, “January 22,” p. 25). The meaning of the saying is more complicated.

“Not Two!” means we are all better off when we function as one. Whether we are talking about a marriage or a family or a workplace or a congregation… we are better off if we work together as one. Working together as one does not mean we can’t do a variety of things, or have varied interests, or function independently. It means we need to work as one.

The problem for the congregation in Corinth was that they were a congregation divided. Scholars point to at least four different factions, three of which are relevant to today’s reading. One faction, I will call the “knowers.” The “knowers” were smart, educated people well-placed in society. They believed that there was no such things as other idols or gods—that the God they worshipped was literally the ONLY god. Pagan “gods” were false, and so no real threat to the God of the Hebrew/Christian tradition.

The second faction in the church can be thought of as the “puritans” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 95). The “puritans” believed in one God, the God of the Hebrew/Christian tradition. They weren’t so sure about pagan gods. They saw people in Corinth worshipping pagan gods. Their culture supported the reality of those gods. They believed, to avoid idolatry, they should avoid any practice or reference pertaining to those gods in order to keep their faith lives pure.

The third faction would be the smallest, and the most vulnerable. I shall call them the “Weakest.” The Weakest were mostly gentiles, converts to Christianity from pagan practices. They wanted to be Christians. But they still dabbled in some pagan practices because they were unable to completely let go of those truths. Pagan practices were somewhat like an insurance policy for them. They might have been saying to themselves “I am going to believe in this (Christianity) but I’m also going to hang onto a little bit of that (their pagan beliefs and practices).

Looking at today’s reading, we see Paul reprimanding (although probably agreeing with) the ‘Knowers” and the puritans. The issue was food. Specifically, the practice of eating food that had been dedicated to gods in other (pagan) temples.

It was standard practice for temples to sell the meat that had been dedicated to their gods. A calf might be sacrificed. Some meat would have been left for the god to eat… the rest taken to market to sell. Folks would buy it and serve it in their homes.

Members of the church in Corinth were arguing about whether or not it was appropriate to eat the “pagan” food. The “Knowers” thought it was ok to eat because those gods weren’t real anyway so the food had no supernatural power to corrupt. The puritans believed the meat should not be touched by any Christian. It was unclean. Eating the meat was a violation of religious law and practice. The “weakest” were eating the meat because they were accustomed to eating the meat, it had been their practice. It re-assured them to hang onto what they had always done.

Paul believed food to be “morally indifferent” (Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 95). Food is food. A tree is a tree. Water is water. BUT—the food that was at the heart of the congregation’s conflict was getting in the way of the congregation being “one.”

Remember, “No Two!” Or three or four…

Paul wanted the congregation in Corinth to be unified. For the sake of unification, the “knowers” and the “puritans” ought to consider the needs of the “weakest.”

If the “weakest” saw the “knowers” eating dedicated temple meat, the “weakest” would think it was ok to do… but for the wrong reasons. They wouldn’t be eating the meat because it had no spiritual meaning or power, they would be eating the temple meat because it still had a spiritual hold on them. Paul knew this to be wrong.

Paul wanted the stronger groups to let go of the strength of their convictions in order to protect the weak.

This message is profoundly relevant to our world today, and always has been relevant to democratic societies. The social contract democracy is built on relies on the power of the majority. The majority rules. The majority is not required to consider the needs of minority groups, unless the majority chooses to guide decisions based on particular virtues or principles that transcend implicit majority powers. For example, the majority might believe all people are created equal. That would mean the majority has to consider the needs of every person, whether or not the person is a member of the majority group or a minority group.

If they choose to do this, they have said equality is of higher importance than majority.

Paul wanted his congregation to say “no two.” We would benefit, as a society, to consider what that means as a moral principle. To think of ourselves as a great big diverse “one.”

All of us loved. All of us respected. All of us letting go of our power if it means assisting the power-less.

This is how Jesus loves us. Jesus loves us each completely, whole-ly, with certainty, ultimately, forever. Just so, Jesus calls us to love each other.

Amen.

 

Third Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, January 21, 2018

January 21, 2018  
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1 Corinthians 7:29-31

The Apostle Paul was an interesting man. He was not a country boy, he was raised in the city of Tarsus. Paul was probably born about the same time as Jesus—a fact I hadn’t taken into consideration prior to preparing for this sermon series. Like Jesus, Paul was raised in a Jewish home. He studied in the synagogue. More than likely, at some point he traveled by sea with his family to Jerusalem to keep the Passover (The Book of Life, vol. 7 “Paul, Life Letters” introduction). Paul trained to be a tentmaker, mostly because it was tradition for Jewish boys to learn trade. Then he traveled to Jerusalem to study with other young men, intending to become a Rabbi. (The Book of Life, vol. 7 introduction).

Why do I mention this? Because it is important for us to know that Paul was comfortable in urban settings. Paul was comfortable traveling the region, first as a young man, then as a Jew in search of Christians, wanting to arrest them, then as a Christian leader spreading the good news of Jesus Christ.

I don’t want to take today’s verses out of their context. It would be easy to read these verses and think Paul wanted early Christians to live like monks, turning away from every worldly thing to focus on the return of Jesus to the world, which even Paul thought would happen soon. Paul didn’t want Christians to be ascetics… he simply wanted them to think about how they were living.

Our reading today is another lesson in morality.

A scholar from the mid-twentieth century wrote

The supreme expression of Paul’s ministry through the Epistles is found in the letters to the Corinthians… the Epistles to the Corinthians are the majestic mountains of faith, their summits seen afar, now clear in the light of dawn, now misty and cloud-capped, now glorious in the sunset. Like all the epistles, they [the letters to the Corinthians] are the children of controversy. In the providence of God these old conflicts and unseemly disputes in the early church became the starting-point for this glorious setting forth of eternal and imperishable truths. (The Book of Life, vol. 7 p. 180).

Hyperbole aside, the scholar makes an important point. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians grow out of controversy. People in Corinth are disagreeing with each other. Paul is trying to help them figure out how to live, both as individuals and as a community of faith.

Today’s reading is a perfect example. Paul wants the people of the church in Corinth to live in the world, and yet to remain detached from the world’s “values and entanglements” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, “1 Corinthians” p. 887).

This is why I tried to describe Paul to you, Paul the boy, the young man, the student, the Rabbi, the zealot. Paul knew the world’s values, he lived and breathed them. He wasn’t opposed to owning things or experiencing joy or grief. What he wanted was for the Corinthians to understand that, having God as their Lord, they ought not let their joys or their griefs or their possessions distract them.

This is a lesson we can all take to heart.

Consider the things that distract us from our faith.

I’m not going to name your distractions… it isn’t my place. But, I do think it is important we each ask ourselves what distracts us from living, from sharing, from celebrating the love of Jesus Christ.

Our reading ends with verse 31 from chapter 7 of Paul’s letter. I want to add verse 35, where Paul wrote:

I say this for your own benefit, not to put any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and unhindered devotion to the Lord.”

It might be a quirk of my Calling, but living with “unhindered devotion” to God—to me—sounds divine.

But, even as I wrote those words the dogs started barking and I had to get up and let them outside and I noticed the carpet was wet from snow getting tracked in and the chair I was sitting in needed the bolts tightened because it was getting wobbly and the table needed the same thing and I noticed the windows needed to be washed and that our Naughty Cat was sitting by a window that I had covered with plastic and I thought “better not tear the plastic…”

My devotion hindered, I got back to writing.

Which is exactly how Paul knew it would be for every member of his congregation. Life IS. Life is a series of distractions… many of them blessings. Paul doesn’t want to take those blessings from us. He wants us to live out those blessings with the understanding that it all points to the God who loves us. Even the struggles we would rather not be engaged in—point to the God who walks with us through our struggles, because God so loves us.

The scholar I began this sermon quoting wrote about the apostle Paul:

He was inspired. His writing was inspired. As the channel of a great river is used to pour its flood from the mountain to the sea, so the Holy Spirit used the channel of this great soul to pour the divine message from the mountains of God to the sea of life and human need. (The Book of Life, vol. 7, introduction).

May Paul’s words point us toward God, and God’s love.

Amen.

Second Sunday of Epiphany – Sunday, January 14, 2018

January 14, 2018  
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1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
which you have from God, and that you are not your own?

For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.

(1 Corinthians 6:19-20)

The apostle Paul wrote this letter that is 1st Corinthians to the church he founded in Corinth. Although it is called “1st Corinthians,” as in it is his first letter to the congregation, some scholars believe it is actually his 2nd  letter (see The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10, p. 776). Their point is that this letter that we call 1st Corinthians was written to clarify comments Paul made in his actual first letter, comments that confused the congregation and led to some disagreement among members (TNIB, p. 776-777).

What they were confused about was how to deal with immorality—either their own or someone else’s.

To understand the struggle the church was engaged in, we need to understand the culture of Corinth. One scholar wrote

In Paul’s time everyone had a lord—that is, someone who could rightly be construed as being over someone else, to whom that someone else belonged or was indebted, and to whom that one was responsible. It was not just slaves who belonged to someone. Everyone right up the chain belonged to another person. Even… the Roman emperor, mused that he was responsible to the gods. And one’s comportment [or behavior] was understood as being keyed to pleasing one’s lord, to whom one was responsible.    (TNIB, vol 10, p. 782).

So—when Paul writes “you are not your own” and when Paul writes “You were bought for a price” – Paul was saying your “lord” is God.
He was saying “you belong to God.” He was saying “you are responsible to God.”

In the context of immorality, Paul was saying “because you are God’s, you have a responsibility to honor God in all that you say and all that you do. Which is why our reading today ends with the words “therefore glorify God in your body.”

This is a tough message to bring into the year 2018.

We’ve been saying for decades “our bodies; ourselves” (see book by same title).

Particularly for women, there has been and there is a necessary struggle in our time to claim ourselves as ours, not someone else’s. The same is true for African Americans who have lived for generations as descendants of slaves… or for Asian Americans or Latin Americans, who have not been slaves but have been servants. Independence and self-governance is vital. Independence and self-governance are necessary in order achieve true freedom.

So how do we live as free, independent people and still believe Paul when Paul says to us “you are not your own”?

The answer is to turn to the first part of verse 19 of our reading.

Verse 19 begins with the words: Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit.

God dwells in us.

Paul was comfortable referring to God as our Master. I am not. Master imagery invokes slavery, which is a horrible, inhumane, oppressive image for relationship.

I am most comfortable thinking of myself as God’s temple.

I am most comfortable thinking of each of us as God’s temple.

I think it is wonderful, that God lives in me. And in you. That doesn’t make us God, it makes us God’s dwelling place. And it gives us a tremendous responsibility, to remember that God dwells in us in all that we say and do. Which gets us back to the reason for misunderstanding in Corinth.

It appears that some members of Paul’s church believed his teachings to mean that “All things are lawful for me” (the first verse of our reading today). They meant by that that all things were permissible. Because they believed this they tolerated immoral behavior. For example, one member of the congregation was living with his step-mother as if his step-mother was his wife.

Paul is trying to correct this misunderstanding by teaching them “your body is a temple of the holy Spirit.” God dwells in them. Because God dwells in them, and now in us, we must “glorify God in [our] body.”

Our reading is a lesson in morality. The reading tells us how we ought to live. According to Paul, we ought to live knowing God dwells in us. Every decision we make, every decision we make about who we are and what we do, we are to make with the knowledge that God dwells in us. Paul calls us to ask ourselves: is who you are giving glory to God? Is what we are doing—what each of us is doing—giving glory to God?

When our answer is “yes” thanks be to God.

When our answer is “no” we’ve got some work to do. We’ve got some thinking to do. We need to think about how we can change ourselves and change our behavior so we better glorify the God who dwells within us.

Amen.

 

 

Christmas 1 – Sunday, December 31, 2017

December 31, 2017  
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Luke 2:22-40

There’s a lot packed into this story from Luke. I’m not going to distract or confuse you by listing off all the different themes there are—I want to focus on one. I want to focus on the idea or concept of ritual. Specifically ritual as it relates to the things Joseph and Mary are doing in the reading, but also ritual as it relates to our lives, now.

Mary and Joseph tend to three rituals in this story, all three from the Hebrew tradition. They are the ritual of circumcision, the ritual of the redemption of the firstborn, and the ritual of the purification of the mother.

I could tell you a funny story about me, my middle school Sunday School teacher and the topic of circumcision, but I won’t. Let’s just say I didn’t know what it was and, when I asked, she told me! Let’s also say I was mortified and horrified at the same time… as only a middle school girl can be when discussing such a topic. We’ll leave it at that.

The Hebrew ritual of purification of a mother after giving birth is interesting.

“After the birth of a male child, the mother was ceremonial unclean for seven days and underwent purification for 33 days” (The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, p. 69). Interestingly, if a female child was born purification took 66 days… (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69). Purification ended with the sacrifice of an animal in the Temple. If the family was poor, doves or pigeons could be sacrificed instead of the regular sacrifice of a lamb (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69).

The redemption of the firstborn is the most important ritual Joseph and Mary engaged in. According to Jewish Law, “As a reminder of the exodus, the firstborn child was consecrated to the Lord” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69). If we are talking about animals… oxen, sheep, lambs, etc. the first born was slaughtered and offered as a sacrifice at the temple. In some pagan religions, firstborn humans were dealt with the same way. Not so for the Hebrew people. Rather than actually slaughter the firstborn human child, the Hebrews had the first born redeemed at the Temple. This meant the first born was taken to the Temple, dedicated, and then the family paid five shekels of silver to buy the first born back (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 69).

All three of these rituals were just elements of a religious life full of rituals. The Hebrew people believed “all of life” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74) was to the glory and praise of God. All of life, from the moment they rose in the morning to the moment they went to bed at night. There were (and are, for devout Jews) prayers for almost every occasion. There were (and are) certain words said, actions taken.

For Christians, some traditions involve ritual more than others. As Protestants, most specifically as Lutherans, ritual hasn’t been that important. In fact, the Reformation took Protestants down a path leading away from ritual rather than toward it.

As a child, other than the rituals of worship we engaged in Sunday after Sunday, there was only one religious ritual my family observed. We prayed at every meal. My parents still pray at every meal. If you are at their house eating with them, you will pray, too. And they always said (always SAY) the same prayer, we often call it “Wendy’s prayer” because my father Wendell wrote it. We also call it “the family prayer.” When you marry into the family (or simply spend a lot of time with my parents) you LEARN the family prayer. Period.

Ritual, when engaged properly, involves mystery. Religious rituals “recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday…” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74). Luther encouraged Christians to rise everyday remembering their baptisms. When you shower or bathe or wash your hands you might remind yourself: I am a baptized child of God. The reminder means you begin the day forgiven, your slate clean, a much loved child of a graceful God. The mystery of God’s love deepens when we remind ourselves every day that God gives us new life.

Ritual, when engaged properly, involves mystery. As residents of the 21st century, how can we “recover the mystery of life and the transcendence of everyday experience”? (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74).

What can you do?

If you live alone, how might you bring God into your everyday life? Do you pray before eating a meal? Do you do or can you do a daily devotion? Can you take a few minutes before bed, light a candle and pray? (Always remembering to blow it out…)

If you live with a spouse or family, do you or can you bring God into your everyday life? Do you or can you pray before whatever meals you might share? Do you or can you do a daily or weekly devotion as a family or couple? Do you or can you take a few minutes at some point in the day to light a candle and pray silently or aloud? (Always remembering to blow it out…)

Now that we’ve got the readings back in the bulletin and we have the prayers included, you can take your bulletin home and use it to create rituals. Read the scripture readings together. Say the prayers to yourself or as a family. Take verse 10 from our first reading and turn it into a tool for conversation:

“I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God”

Ask yourself or yourselves, what has this day given me I/we can rejoice in? If you have no answer, you have found reason to pray…

Whatever rituals you might already engage in or create for yourself or your family, remember, rituals ought not be restrictive. They are an opportunity to “celebrate the goodness and mystery of life” (TNIB, vol. 9, p. 75).

There is a saying attributed to Jesus from The Apocryphal New Testament:

Where-so-ever there are (two, they are not without) God: and where there is one alone I say I am with him [or her]. Lift the stone and there shalt thou find me: cleave the wood and I am there. (As quoted in TNIB, vol. 9, p. 74).

Jesus was meaning to say that, in all we do, in all we say, in all that we are, in every day… Jesus is with us.

Let’s honor the mystery of Christ’s presence.

Amen.

 

 

 

Christmas Day – Monday, December 25, 2017

December 25, 2017  
Filed under Sermons

John 1:1-14

During the early years of my first call… so the late 1980’s and early 1990’s… democracy was surging across Eastern Europe. Those of us living back then remember when the Soviet Union became a multitude of independent nations, one of which was Russia. Another was Romania. In 1989 democracy found a foothold in Romania.

The leader of the old Romania was a harsh dictator. As he saw democracy move in, threatening his leadership, he fled the country. As I watched these events unfold evening after evening on the national news, I heard a reporter tell a story that I have repeated a few times. The story is short. The story is simple.

As Romania’s dictator fled the country, the reporter interviewed various people, anonymous people who hadn’t ever known the freedom of speech we so richly honor here in the United States. These anonymous people were interviewed standing on a platform where their old leader had stood only hours before, calling for the deaths of his citizens. The screams of those innocent victims still echoing, an un-named person, perhaps a poet, told the reporter “A new child was born today; his name was Victory.”

The day he spoke those words? December 25, 1989.

“A new child was born today; his name was Victory.”

The Word which had been in the beginning has dwelt among us.

The Word which was with God, which was God became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.

His name was Jesus.

Jesus is our Victory.

The event of his birth was heralded by angels, and yet witnessed only by shepherds.

He was born in a manger. Born into poverty, yet honored by kings.

In this Victory our faith was born.

Our faith in Jesus Christ was born. Our faith in his ability to deliver us, to save us, to offer us the promise of everlasting life.

Back in Romania during the struggle for independence and a democratic society, when people protested the government’s acts of oppression, the protesters would place their own children between themselves and the police. The protesters believed the police would never dare harm children. But harm children they did. The Romanian police killed the children. The Victory born for the people of Romania came at tremendous cost. Death was midwife to their Victory.

The Victory Jesus brought to the world would have not been possible without his death. Born already a King, Jesus brought Victory to the world through his death and resurrection. It is only because he conquered death that we all are promised victory over our own—our own deaths and the deaths of those we have loved and lost.

Christmas is not just about a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem. Christmas is about the promise that child, born in a manger in Bethlehem brought to the world. Jesus brought a promise of peace! Jesus brought a promise of love! Jesus brought a promise of graceful forgiveness, forgiveness that can only come because Jesus died for us and for our salvation.

“A new child was born today; his name was Victory.”

Jesus was born on this day, years ago. Jesus is our victory.

Jesus is our Emmanuel. Jesus is God with us.

Jesus is our Sovereign Ruler.

Jesus is the Prince of Peace.

Jesus is Savior of the world.

Jesus was born on this day, our Victory.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Christmas Eve – Sunday, December 24, 2017

December 24, 2017  
Filed under Sermons

Throughout the year 2017 Christians have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. At the heart of our celebrations has been the work of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther. WE honor him this evening by remembering what he wrote about “The Nativity” of Jesus. His words are from his essay “The Nativity,” included in a collection of his writings known as The Martin Luther Christmas Book.

Luther wrote:

How unobtrusively and simply do those events take place on earth that are so heralded in heaven!

On earth it happened this[way]:

There was a poor young wife, Mary of Nazareth, among the meanest dwellers of the town, so little esteemed that none noticed the great wonder she carried. She was silent, did not want to vaunt herself, but served her husband, her had no…maid. They simply left the house. Perhaps they had a donkey for Mary to ride on, though the gospels say nothing about it and we may well believe she went on foot. Think how she was treated at the inns along the way, she who might well have been taken in a golden carriage! How many great ladies and their daughters there were in that time, living in luxury, while the Mother of God, on foot, in midwinter trudged her weight across fields!

Bad enough that… [Mary]… could not have had her baby at Nazareth in her own house instead of making all that journey of three days when heavy with child! How much worse that when she arrived there was no room for her! The inn was full. No one would release a room to this pregnant woman. She had to go to a cow stall and there bring forth the Maker of all creatures because nobody would give way…

They did not recognize what God was doing in the stable. With all their eating, drinking, and finery, God left them empty, and this comfort and treasure was hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen.

Thus God shows that god has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or consider what God is and has and does.

Luther wrote:

There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the baby! I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!”

Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem… Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve [that person], for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.

The birth was even more pitiable…

There she was without preparation: no light, no fire, in the dead of night, in thick darkness. No one came to give… assistance.

She ‘wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”

This was the first throne of this King. There in a stable… lay the Creator of the world.

What Mary and Joseph did next, nobody knows. The scholars say they adored. They must have marveled that this Child was the Son of God. He was also a real human being… He was a true baby, with flesh, blood, hands and legs. He slept, cried, and did everything else that a baby does…

Behold Christ lying in the lap of his young mother… What can be sweeter than the Babe, what more lovely than the Mother!

Look at the Child, knowing nothing. Yet all that is belongs to him, that your conscience should not fear but take comfort in him. Doubt nothing. Watch him springing in the lap of [his mother]. Laugh with him. Look upon this Lord of Peace and your spirit will be at peace. See how God invites you in many ways. God places before you a Babe with whom you may take refuge. You cannot fear him, for nothing is more appealing to people than a babe. Are you [frightened]? Then come to him… You will see how great is the diving goodness, which seeks above all else that you should not despair. Trust him! Trust him!

Here is the Child in whom is salvation. To me there is no greater consolation given to [humankind] than this, that Christ became human, a child, a babe, playing on the lap and at the breasts of his most gracious mother. Who is there whom this sight would not comfort? Now is overcome the power of sin, death, hell, conscience, and guilt, if you come to this gurgling Babe and believe that he is come, not to judge you, but to save.

So writes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther in the 16th century.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Longest Night – Thursday, December 21, 2017

December 21, 2017  
Filed under Sermons, Uncategorized

Isaiah 9:2-7

It never ceases to amaze me that we, as Christians, chose to pin our hopes on a newborn child.

Babies are so fragile. They are so weak. They are physically powerless. They are defenseless. Babies are completely dependent on others for their survival.

And yet we, as Christians, found hope and promise and joy and strength in the birth of a tiny baby boy. In Bethlehem. In a manger. When there was no room in the inn.

Turn on the radio right now and you will hear Christmas hymns playing.

Drive down the street (or walk) after worship tonight and you will see Christmas lights on houses, breaking through the night sky with color and brightness.

Go to the store and you will find people shopping for gifts to give. Go to the grocery store and you will see shelf after shelf of Christmas candy, Christmas cookies, cranberries and pumpkin pie filling and frozen turkeys and ham. It all screams out to us—Christmas! Celebration! Joy!

If you aren’t feeling the brightness, aren’t wanting to celebrate, aren’t thinking this is a joyful time for you… what do you do? How do the lights and songs and celebrations make you feel?

Tonight is the longest night. It the time of the least daylight. There are long shadows.

If you find yourself living in the shadows, or walking through the valley of the shadow, tonight might (finally) be a night where you find yourself to be most comfortable.

Or it is horrible.

What the night brings might be unpredictable for you, this year. As it might have been last year, and the year before.

We choose the longest night for a service of healing because we trust; that baby born in a manger in Bethlehem has the power to heal the world. That baby brought light into the world. A light no darkness can overcome. That baby, Jesus, is our Sovereign Ruler. Our Savior. Our God.

And he brings peace.

Jesus promises us peace.

The world cannot bring us peace. Jesus can.

Jesus, our light.

Jesus, our hope.

Jesus, our healer.

Jesus, who lives in our hearts each and every moment.

Jesus is with us.

Now and always.

Amen.

 

 

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